Exegesis Numbers 22:22-40
This passage is a small section of the story of Balaam and Balak Num. 22:1 – 24:24, in Num. 21 the Israelites had defeated Og king of Bashan in battle and were now encamped on the plains of Moab. Balak king of Moab fearing that the Israelites would attack him and his people next called on the help of the renowned seer Balaam son of Beor from Pethor to come and curse the Israelites so that they would not do well in battle. Our chosen passage is a part of that larger Balaam and Balak story that includes an angel armed with a sword, a blind seer, and a talking donkey.
I chose this passage for the exegesis assignment because I have read it before when I would read the Bible in a year, I always enjoyed reading the story of Balaam and his talking donkey but never thought to spend a lot of time digging deeply into the story.
In my reading of the four translations NRSV, JPS, NASB (formal), and the NIV (mediation), I found that most of the text was very similar except for the following verses:
The NRSV and the NIV do not contain a translation note and the difference in the translations were as follows:
NRSV “he bowed down, falling on his face”
NIV “bowed low and fell facedown”
The JPS and the NASB do contain a translation note as follows:
JPS “he bowed right down to the ground” translation note – Lit. “and prostrated himself to his nostrils”
NASB “he bowed all the way to the ground” translation note – Lit. “and prostrated himself to his face”
The Hebrew is יָרַט(yarat), shove, push; be reckless (H3740) and is translated four different ways in the translations below:
NRSV “perverse to me” translation note – meaning of Heb. Uncertain
JPS “obnoxious to me” translation note – Precise meaning of Heb. Uncertain
NASB “contrary to me” translation note – “reckless”
NIV “reckless one before me” translation note – Lit. reckless
The word only appears in the Hebrew Bible here in Num. 22:32 and Job 16:11 “where Job describes his fate as being ‘thrown into’ the hands of the wicked.”. Klingbeil argues that to translate the word as “reckless” in the NIV does not seem satisfactory, but he does not suggest an alternative translation, so the precise Hebrew meaning remains uncertain.
The text is set in the time of the Exodus the Israelites are coming to the end of their 40 years in the wilderness and are preparing to enter the promised land. It is difficult to put a date of authorship on the Balaam periscope it was thought to be written much later and in a separate scroll and referred to as the “Section of Balaam” in the rabbinic tradition.What we do know is that Balaam did exist outside of the references we find in Hebrew scripture, but also from an inscription dating to the 8thcentury BCE found at a dig in Jordan in 1967.
Balaam is first mentioned in Num. 22-24 in the NRSV and is portrayed as a person who after an encounter with God and the angel of God blesses Israel rather than curse Israel as requested by Balak king of Moab and again in Num. 31:8 which speaks of his death along with the kings of Midian. In later references to Balaam he is portrayed as a person who was responsible for leading Israel astray as in Num. 31:16 where he is accused of advising Moabite women to seduce the men of Israel. This is strange as there is no reference to Balaam giving this advice in the Balaam and Balak story. There are also several secondary references to Balaam in Deut. 23:4-5, Josh. 13:22, 24:9-10, Neh. 13:2, Mic. 6:5, 2Pet. 2:15, Jude 11, and Rev. 2:14 which all pointed to Balaam as a cause of the Israelites sin. Jo Ann Hackett argues that these references both positive and negative come from different sources. The positive accounts from the E and J sources where Balaam is portrayed as a typical YHWH prophet who speaks the words given by God, and the negative comments about Balaam are from the P sources and allude to Balaam being part of the reason for the Israelites sin.Levine tells us that some literary analysts argue that the purpose of the fable of Balaam and his donkey was to mock the capabilities Balaam which led to the later negative references to him.
The genres found in Num. 22:22-40 include narrative, legend (fable), and dialogue. Num. 22:22-27 contains the narration of Balaam riding his donkey on the road to Moab and the interwoven legend (fable) of the donkey that sees and the seer that does not see. The first section of dialogue occurs in versus 28 thru 30 and the first to speak is the donkey and Balaam responds. In verse 31 the text returns to narration describing where Balaam’s eyes are opened and sees what the donkeys sees. Versus 32 thru 35 moves back to dialogue this time between the angel and Balaam. Verse 36 describes the continuance of the journey and the arrival at Moab where Balak is waiting for him to arrive. We return to dialogue in versus 37 and 38 between Balaam and Balak. The remainder of the passage narrates the journey of Balaam and Balak to Kiriath-huzoth.
The passage is broken up into three scenes:
- the legend (fable) of the talking donkey,
- the opening of Balaam’s eyes, and
- Balaam’s arrival in Moab.
This scene brings up a few questions when the passage in read in the context of the surrounding chapters. If the Balaam and Balak pericope Num. 22-24 was removed from Numbers, it would not change the flow or the remainder of the book. As mentioned already in the Historical Context above the rabbinic tradition call this the “Section of Balaam” and believed the story was written later and added to Numbers.Within the context of Num. 22 our passage appears to also be a later edition to the pericope in v. 20 Balaam is given permission by God to travel to Moab but he must only speak what is given to him. In v22 God sends his angel to block Balaam’s way because he is angry with him. Frisch tells us that there are various explanations for this question but the most likely is that Num. 22:22-35 was a story from another source and added to the Balaam pericope later.The scene is one of reversal of roles the donkey becomes the seer and sees the angel blocking the way those three times as the way becomes narrower on each encounter with the angel. In the end the donkey cannot go any further and lays down under Balaam. Balaam becomes like the stubborn donkey and insists on pushing forward not aware of the impending danger by the angel holding the sword and blocking the way. Each time Balaam strikes the donkey his anger becomes more intense until he beats the donkey the third time with his staff.God opens the mouth of the donkey and the donkey asks Balaam “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” v. 28, to which Balaam replies, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” v. 29. The donkey replies as in v. 30, and Balaam admits to the donkey that he had not let him down in the past. The irony of these versus is that the Balaam does not appear to be surprised that a donkey can talk, and there is another reversal in that the angel is armed with a sword in his hand and Balaam says to the donkey he wishes he had one in his hand.
God opens Balaam’s eyes in v. 31 and he sees the angel blocking the way and holding the sword and Balaam immediately bows face down to the ground. Now the angel speaks asking the same question as the donkey “Why have you struck your donkey?” as I am the one who has come out against you because of your ways. The statement by the angel seems to say that Balaam could see or should have seen, and had God not opened Balaam’s eyes he Balaam would have killed the donkey or the angel would have killed Balaam. The commentaries I have researched do not seem to have a definitive answer to these questions, only to say something along the lines of; “God is the one who must open Balaam’s eyes, just as God was the one who opened the donkey’s mouth (v. 28).”
In the dialogue of v. 33-35 the angel informs Balaam that he would have killed him if it wasn’t for the donkey, Balaam realising his sin repents and tells the angel he will return to his home. The angel tells Balaam to continue his journey but only say the words that God puts in his mouth (this ties back to v. 20 where God says to go but only say what I tell you.
In our final scene for this passage Balaam arrives at Ir-moab on the Arnon River with his companions and they meet Balak there. Why would Balak the king and his entourage travel to the farthest point of the border? It is not clear in the commentaries why Balak would travel to meet Balaam, but the fact that Balak prepared a “well-being” sacrifice zevah shelamimfor Balaam and his companions, that would indicate he saw Balaam as a very important guest.
The scene finishes with Balak chiding Balaam for not coming earlier the sacrifice and the completion of the journey to Kiriath-huzoth.
Reflection and Conclusion
A lot more time could be spent going deeper into this passage as well as the Balaam and Balak pericope. As we saw in the canonical context above Balaam’s name comes up in scripture both as a villain who causes Israel to sin, and as a hero where he goes against to Moabites and blesses the Israelites. I find these types of stories interesting because they teach us a lot theologically and in an entertaining way. This assessment essay motivates me to spend a lot more time on exegesis of the books of the Hebrew Bible.
Fretheim, Terence E. “Numbers.” In The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Version with the Apocrypha an Ecumenical Study Bible, edited by Editor Michael David Coogan and Carol A. Newsom Marc Z. Brettler, and Pheme Perkins, Associate Editors, 185-245: Oxford University Press, 2010. Reprint, 4th
Frisch, Amos. “The Story of Balaam’s She-Ass (Numbers 22:21-35): A New Literary Insight.” Hebrew Studies 56 (2015): 103-13.
Hackett, Jo Ann. “Balaam.” In The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance Elelectronic Edition, edited by Jacob Milgrom and David Noel Freedman Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
———. “”Story of Balaam”, N.P. [Cited 25 May 2017]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/Places/Related-Articles/the-Story-of-Balaam.”
Klingbeil, Martin G. The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Accordance Electronic Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997. Book.
Levine, Baruch A. “Numbers 22-24: The Balaam Pericope.” In Anchor Yale Bible Commentary: Numbers 21-36New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
Long, David. The Accordance Gallery of Bible Art. Accordance Electronic Edition. Altamonte Springs: OakTree Software, 2006.
Milgrom, Jacob. “Numbers. The Jps Torah Commentary. Accordance Electronic Ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.” (1990).
Olson, Dennis T. “Numbers.” In The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Accordance electronic ed., edited by Walter J. Harrelson Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.Way, Kenneth. “Animals in the Prophetic World: Literary Reflections on Numbers 22 and 1 Kings 13.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 34, no. 1 (2009): 47-62.
Martin G. Klingbeil, The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis. Accordance Electronic Edition, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997),533.
Jacob Milgrom, “Numbers. The Jps Torah Commentary. Accordance Electronic Ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society,” (1990),185.
Jo Ann Hackett, “”Story of Balaam”, N.P. [Cited 25 May 2017]. Online: Https://Www.Bibleodyssey.Org:443/Places/Related-Articles/the-Story-of-Balaam.”
Jo Ann Hackett, “Balaam,” ed. Jacob Milgrom and David Noel Freedman, vol. 1, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Accordance Elelectronic Edition(Haven: Yale University Press, 2008),569.
Baruch A Levine, Book “Numbers 22-24: The Balaam Pericope,” Anchor Yale Bible Commentary: Numbers 21-36electronic ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Introduction para. 3.
Amos Frisch, “The Story of Balaam’s She-Ass (Numbers 22:21-35): A New Literary Insight,” Hebrew Studies56 (2015),104.
Terence E. Fretheim, “Numbers,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible New Revised Version with the Apocrypha an Ecumenical Study Bible, ed. Editor Michael David Coogan and Carol A. Newsom Marc Z. Brettler, and Pheme Perkins, Associate Editors (Oxford University Press, 2010; reprint, 4th ),223.
Kenneth Way, “Animals in the Prophetic World: Literary Reflections on Numbers 22 and 1 Kings 13,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament34, no. 1 (2009),50.
Dennis T. Olson, “Numbers,” ed. Walter J. Harrelson, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Accordance electronic ed.(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003),Verse 32.